The real Lincoln is elsewhere. He is to be found, for those able to read old prose, in his own writings. According to Lincoln's law partner William Herndon: "He was the most continuous and severest thinker in America. He read but little and that for an end. Politics was his Heaven and his Hades metaphysics." Lincoln read and reread Shakespeare; he studied Blackstone's legal commentaries. And that was about it. Biographies bored him; he read no novels. Yet, somehow (out of continuous and severe thinking?), he became a master of our most difficult language, and the odd music to his sentences is unlike that of anyone else--with the possible exception of Walt Whitman on a clear unweepy day.
The actual Lincoln was cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant. In private life, he had [few] intimates except [William] Herndon....
It will come as a terrible shock to many of those who have been twice-born in the capacious bosom of Jesus to learn that Lincoln not only rejected Christianity but wrote a small book called "Infidelity" (meaning lack of faith in God). [Herndon writes that] Lincoln:
"read his manuscript to Samuel Hill, his employer (who) said to Lincoln: 'Lincoln, let me see your manuscript.' Lincoln handed it to him. Hill ran it in a tin-plate stove, and so the book went up in flames. Lincoln in that production attempted to show that the Bible was false: first on the grounds of reason, and, second, because it was self-contradictory; that Jesus was not the son of God any more than any man."
from "Last Note on Lincoln," The New York Review of Books, August 15, 1991:
Although Lincoln belonged to no Christian church, he did speak of the "Almighty" more and more often as the war progressed. During the Congressional election of 1846, Lincoln had been charged with "infidelity" to Christianity. At the time, he made a rather lawyerly response. To placate those who insisted that presidents must be devout monotheists (preferably Christian and Protestant), Lincoln allowed that he himself could never support "a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion." The key word, of course, is "open." As usual, Lincoln does not lie--something that the Jesuits maintain that no wise man does--but he shifts the argument to his own advantage and gets himself off the atheistical hook much as Thomas Jefferson had done almost a century earlier.
In any event, for better or worse, we still live in the divided house that Lincoln cobbled together for us, and it is always useful to get to know through his writing not the god of the establishment-priests but a literary genius who was called upon to live, rather than merely to write, a high tragedy. I can think of no one in literary or political history quite like this essential American writer.
Copyright © by Gore Vidal